Working Across Language and Cultures: BBF Council Helps Agencies Make Change

Vermont is home to many new immigrant groups in part due to the resettlement of up to 300-350 refugees annually. Languages spoken in homes in addition to English include: Bhutanese-Nepali, Maay Maay, Somali, Burmese, French, Spanish, Arabic and Swahili to name a few. Providing competent language access is a hallmark for organizations to serve clients who are English Language Learners. Community-serving agencies strive to provide accessible services and asked for help.

In my role as Chittenden BBF Regional Coordinator, I responded by convening Learning Communities on Language Access. I facilitated three cohorts over the last two years – each group meets monthly over four months. This Spring, participants represented fourteen agencies serving families in Chittenden and Rutland regions, where language diversity is highest in the state.

Addressing inequities in our systems is a passion of mine and work I have been doing with organizations since 2008 when I started the We All Belong program at the City of Burlington, VT. Addressing inequities by providing culturally and linguistically accessible services is also a priority of the Chittenden Building Bright Future Council and that of Project LAUNCH; a Federal grant in its final year to identify unmet health needs in children with a focus on refugees and immigrants in Chittenden County.

The Language Access group provided a structure for agencies to dedicate time to the topic. The goal was to develop policies and practices to improve how they serve a linguistically diversifying community. The basic tenants of language access in organizations include:

  • Understand who you are serving and what languages and dialects are prefered for communication.
  • Identify clients who need interpretation at the start of your working relationship or intake. It is important to not rely on family or children to serve as interpreters.
  • Maintain a language access policy to guide and norm practices of staff including all points of contact: calls to the main desk, setting up appointments, letters about registration or service use, and in-person meetings with interpreters.
  • Establish contracts to deliver interpretation services through phone, video or in-person interpretation. Often an agency needs multiple options to meet client needs and not rely on only one method.
  • Provide ongoing training and coaching for staff to work across languages and cultures; for staff to know when interpretation is needed, how to set it up and ensure a successful experience for clients.
  • Budget for interpretation and translation services and training for staff.
  • Identify what key documents are most important for communicating with clients and how to simplify the message, translate it and examine if the message translates across cultural context. Create procedures to share information verbally if translated documents are not available.
  • Regularly evaluate your procedures by asking clients about the quality of the communication interpretation and use this input to make improvements in your process and staff training.

The group of organizations participating in the Language Access Learning Community explored these topics together. They shared strategies they used to improve accessibility and also how they struggle to do this as well. Participants met monthly from January to May to learn how other organizations in their cohort are reaching clients who are non-English speakers; understand that solutions are about both working across language and culture; seek to comply with laws and implement best practices; and learn how to adapt programs, assessments, outreach and hiring to better serve our community.

So what changes did agencies make as a result of participating in the Language Access Learning Community? All participating agencies reported making sustainable changes to better serve clients who are English Language Learners. Doing this work alongside other organizations helped them stay on-task. This was a process of identifying where to start in their agency, what resources they had and what were needed, and who needed to be on-board to make the internal changes. Participants also gained an important understanding of the risks and impact to families by not providing accessible services. Out of this conversation grew compassion and commitment for our work together to improve systems.

Here are some of the impacts shared by participating agencies:

Vermont Legal Aid recognized that access is so much more than language and translation. This prompted an agency-wide tour of core values, existing policies and practices. David Koeninger, the organization’s Deputy Director, shared:

“We decided to focus on a general access policy first, and then will work on language access policy. We are looking at clients’ experiences from how they are greeted when entering our office or calling for help. This program came at the right time and we are making progress and will do a better job because we could peel back layers and see the deeper issues.”

Sharon O’Neill, the Kinship, Foster & Adoptive Parent Training Coordinator from the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership, also reflected on the connection between language access and broader accessibility needs:

“Participating in this language access work has prompted a review of assumptions we make on the literacy level of caregivers participating in our trainings. We are doing a review to improve access for participants who are have both limited English and limited literacy.”

Creating language access plans and putting practice into policy was another shared goal. Vermont Cares already had a variety of practices in place, but they were not yet formalized into policies. They consulted with staff and drafted a Language Access Plan currently under review. Vermont Family Network used the time to review existing policy effectiveness and rewrite their Limited English Proficiency Policy in their employee handbook.

Having policies on file is important though organizations must make sure staff operate under those standards. In addition, training staff how to navigate relationships with clients across culture and language is a skill needed for organizations to provide linguistically accessible services.

Leslie Stapleton and Richard Giddings, District Directors, identified for their staff in the
DCF Economic Services in Burlington and Rutland offices. They wanted to support their staff through additional training on how to identify when a client needs interpretation and how to set on up and use interpreters to work across language differences. Training will be in-person and they are advocating to expand web-based trainings for all Economic Service Division employees.

Champlain Valley Head Start is also working on training staff to improve practices working with interpreters. They are also training cultural brokers (staff who work to interpret language and help navigate issues of culture) to help CVHS deliver developmental screenings with children, and then communicating with parents. CVHS hopes that by training cultural brokers in the developmental screening tool the assessment will be more culturally responsive and effective.

When it comes to enrolling children in programs, King Street Center transformed how they work with families to register for their summer programs. Stacy Weinberger, the Early Education Director and shared:

“Previously, we made a lot of assumptions about who would participate in summer programming year to year. Thanks to this process we totally changed the process to account for the major barriers families might face in registering for programs and took much more care in working with families in the process.”

King Street invited families to a registration night where they provided childcare, dinner, money for parking, and interpreters to help families complete the registration process.

King Street, and the other participating agencies, acknowledge they still have more to learn and change. It is slow and important work. The Language Access group is designed to catalyze organization-level change in order for family serving agencies to improve practices working across language and culture. This is a priority of the Building Bright Futures Council, which will continue to explore causes and interventions to address inequities in our system. 

2017 Participating Agencies

Champlain Valley Head Start, Children’s Integrated Services Rutland, DCF Economic Services Rutland and Burlington Districts, DCF Family Service Burlington District Office, Hunger Free Vermont, King Street Center, Vermont Cares, Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership, Vermont Family Network, Vermont Food Bank, Vermont Legal Aid, Vermont Works for Women.  

2016 Participating Agencies

Burlington Children’s Space, Champlain Valley Head Start, Childcare Resource, Community Health Center of Burlington, Department of Health Burlington District Office, Lund, Winooski Family Center.

Beth Truzansky
Chittenden County Regional Coordinator
Building Bright Futures



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